"I expect that Father will be so charmed to see us that he will not think anything about the inconvenience of our numbers," put in Sylvia confidently; but a chill little wonder crept into the heart of Nealie as to whether it might not have been better to have waited in England until their father had said whether he really wished for them to come and join him in this distant land. However, it was too late now for regrets of this sort, and the only thing to be done was to go forward, and to be happy while they could. It was this feeling which made her say to Mr. Wallis:
"Do you think that Captain Moore will be willing to let us go off the ship with you? We are so very tired of being on board."
"I should think you must be; that is how most people feel by the time they reach Sydney. We are so far away from Europe, you see, and a long voyage is bound to be tedious," he answered kindly; and then he told them that he would go and interview the captain at once about the matter of their going. Meanwhile they were to wait in the dining saloon for him, as he would certainly not find it easy to hunt for them in the confusion which at present reigned on board.
"What a dear he is, bless his heart!" cried Sylvia, dancing lightheartedly up and down between the tables; then seizing upon Billykins for a partner she whirled round and round, while Don and Ducky joined forces to take their share of the fun, and Rumple bobbed, bowed, then spun round and round without any partner at all, and dancing with more energy than discretion was constantly falling foul of the chairs, which were screwed to the floor and swung round upon pivots.
Only Nealie and Rupert stood apart, talking rather anxiously about the future and wondering whether their scanty stock of money would suffice for all the needs of the journey. Rupert had been rather lamer than usual during the last few days, owing to an accidental slip on the stairs. This lameness was one of the private worries of Nealie, for she did not believe that he need be lame if only the weak foot and ankle were properly treated. However, her father would doubtless see that the dear eldest brother had all the care that was necessary, and so until they reached Hammerville she would just have to leave the matter where it was.
Mr. Wallis, coming back from his interview with the captain, thought that he had never seen a family more radiantly happy than this company of boys and girls who were skipping and prancing up and down the long room, bumping against each other in sheer gleefulness of heart.
But at sight of him they instantly subsided into outward quiet, coming crowding about him to know how his errand had sped.
"The captain says that he will be very pleased to let you go ashore with me——" began Mr. Wallis, and then found he could get no further until the noise of a rousing three times three, led by Rumple, had died away, for he could not make himself heard above such a noise.
"No more cheering until Mr. Wallis has finished, please," said Nealie firmly, as she laid her hand in a restraining fashion on the shoulder of Rumple.
"I was going to say," continued Mr. Wallis, "that I should have been very delighted to have taken you out to Mosman's Bay, where my home is, but unfortunately the house is at present shut up, as my wife is away visiting her mother at Auckland, in New Zealand, and I am staying at my club in the city, where no ladies are admitted; but I can put you up at a nice quiet hotel where you will be quite comfortable; indeed I told Captain Moore that I would do so."
"You are most kind, and we are very grateful," said Nealie in a rather hesitating tone. "But I am afraid that we cannot afford to stay much at hotels, for Mr. Melrose told us they were very expensive, and if we are not careful our money will not last us until we reach Hammerville. There are so many of us, you see, and we all want so much to eat that our food bills must of necessity be very expensive."
Mr. Wallis waved his hand with a deprecating air. "Of course, of course, and it is really a very fine thing to be hungry; I often wish that I could get up a vigorous appetite myself, but I can't. I hope that while you are in Sydney you will consider yourselves my guests; it will be a very great pleasure to show you some of the sights of the city. Suppose you stay over to-morrow—we can get a large amount of sightseeing into that time—and then the wagon shall be ready for you to make an early start. The captain understands that you are to be my guests, and that is why he is willing to let you come ashore with me. Please collect the baggage that you want to take with you, then I will give orders for the remainder of your luggage to be sent to the hotel. We ought to get away as quickly as we can, so that no time may be lost."
There was no stopping the cheers this time, and Nealie put her fingers in her ears because of the noise, but Mr. Wallis looked actually pleased at the commotion he had evoked; and then there was a great rush for the cabins, where each one had a bag or a bundle ready.
"What a delightful sensation it is to find firm ground under one's feet!" cried Nealie, as she walked with a springy step by the side of Mr. Wallis.
"I expect it is; but all the same you will be wise not to do too much walking at first, for land is apt to prove very trying to the person who has just arrived after a long voyage," replied Mr. Wallis, who had noticed how lame Rupert was, and guessed that the boy would rather suffer any torture than admit that walking was painful. He had his reward in the look of dumb gratitude Rupert gave him when a roomy carriage had been secured, and they were all packed in as tight as sardines in a tin, with Don and Billykins sharing the driver's perch, and making shrill comments as they went along.
First of all they were driven to the hotel, which was a very homely sort of place, with a motherly manageress, who would insist on kissing the girls, although happily she stopped short at that, leaving the boys with a mere handshake. She was English herself, so she said, and just ached for a sight of the old country, which made her welcome so warmly everyone who came straight from England.
Mr. Wallis wanted them to have luncheon then, but as they all stoutly declared that they could not touch a mouthful of food of any kind, and as it was really early for lunch, he took them off, on a tram this time, to see something of the city.
He took them along George Street, which, following as it does the lines of an old bush trail, winds and wriggles in a way that was more suggestive of Canterbury in England than of a great colonial city. Sometimes they rode in electric trams, sometimes they had a carriage chartered for their use, and then again it was an omnibus which had the honour of their patronage, and Nealie privately wondered how much it cost Mr. Wallis to take them round that day, for he would let them pay for nothing themselves, declaring that he would not have his privilege as their host infringed in any way.
They had lunch in a grand hotel in Wynyard Square, and afterwards went to see the residence of the Governor-General; but imposing as were the battlemented walls and magnificent staterooms, the greatness of the place was not so impressive to the seven as was the General Post Office, and they were made completely happy when Mr. Wallis took them right to the top of the building, so that they might look out over the city from the windows of the room under the clock chamber of the great tower.
It was small wonder that they were so tired, after such a round of sightseeing, that they had to decline Mr. Wallis's kind proposal to take them to a dramatic entertainment, which was being given that night in the town hall.
Ducky, Don, and Billykins were all three so fast asleep, when they arrived back at the hotel where they were staying, that one of the waiters had to be called to help carry the sleepers in and up to their bedrooms, and as they could not be roused for supper they were just left to have their sleep out, and the four elders had cakes and coffee on the balcony overlooking Pitt Street.
"I wonder what dear Father is thinking about to-night," said Sylvia dreamily, as she sat in a wicker chair, with her feet upon another, feeling at peace with all the world.
"Perhaps his ears are burning, and he is wondering who is talking about him; although a man with seven children may always feel pretty certain that one or more of the seven have got their thoughts upon him," replied Rumple, who was nibbling the end of a stumpy pencil and lovingly fingering a dirty little notebook. He was just then very undecided as to whether he would write a sonnet to his father or start on a history of Sydney. Mr. Wallis had told him so many stories of the old Botany Bay days that he felt quite primed for a very ambitious book indeed.
"I am wondering who is going to drive the horse," said Rupert, whose foot was aching badly, and consequently making him feel very depressed and unfit to cope with difficulties which might be looming in the near distance.
"I shall, unless you especially yearn for the business," said Nealie quietly, and then her hand stole into his with such a complete understanding of how he felt at that moment that he blessed her in his heart, and said to himself that she was a brick of a girl, and that it was worth while to be her brother.
Somehow Nealie always understood without words when Rupert felt as if life were something too big to be lived, and then she would fling herself into the breach, and let him feel that she was quite ready to hold up the heavier end of every burden.
"The poor animal will not cherish any illusions about the charms of running away after it has had the pleasure of dragging us and our baggage for a few score miles. I think that we ought to have a pair," put in Sylvia in a dreamy tone; she was getting very sleepy, only it seemed too much trouble to go to bed just yet.
"Oh, we cannot have two horses; think what a worry it would be!" exclaimed Nealie. "Mr. Wallis said that one would be quite sufficient, as we did not need to travel very fast. He said that one horse, if it were well fed, could always draw a ton weight on a decent road, and we should not weigh a ton, I should hope."
"Not far short of it, by the time baggage and wagon have been weighed in, as well as the seven of us," said Rupert, and then he called out that Rumple was asleep. The first paragraph of the projected History of Sydney had been too much for the aspiring young author, who was snoring with his nose on the grubby little notebook.
"We cannot carry him to bed, and I am afraid that the waiters will form a very poor opinion of us if we ask them to do it, so we must wake him if we can," said Sylvia, jumping up and starting on a vigorous shaking of her younger brother.
"It is of no use, dear; he will not wake up, and you and I must just drag him into his room as best we can," said Nealie, interposing to prevent Rumple from being shaken and bumped any more.
"What a set of children ours are!" cried Sylvia impatiently. "If once they drop asleep there never seems any possibility of waking them before the next morning."
"It is not more than a year ago that Mrs. Puffin and I carried you up to bed one night when you had fallen asleep downstairs," replied Nealie, with a laugh. "I remember that we stuck fast in the narrow part just outside Aunt Judith's door, and we could not get up or down; indeed it looked not improbable that we might have to leave you there until morning, climbing over your sleeping form every time we wanted to pass up or down. Then Mrs. Puffin had a happy inspiration, and, acting upon it, we slid a sheet under you, and, Rupert coming to our help, we dragged you up the last four steps by sheer force of arm."
"I remember it," laughed Sylvia. "That was the time when I dreamed that I was tobogganing down the Rocky Mountains, and when I woke up next morning, and found how badly I was bruised, I thought that it really must be true, and no dream at all. How shall we carry him, Nealie? Will it be easier to join hands under him, or to haul him out feet first?"
"Feet first, I think," she answered. "It is not safe to join hands under sleeping persons, because you have no hand free to catch them if they sway. If you will carry his feet, I will take his shoulders, and we will soon have him on his bed. Then I think we had better go to bed also, for it would be tragic if we fell asleep; we should have to stay where we are all night, because there is no one strong enough to carry us;" and Nealie's laugh rang out, as if she had not a care in the world, and was promptly echoed by Rupert and Sylvia.
The One-armed Man
The seven had hardly finished breakfast next morning when Mr. Wallis arrived. Surely never had an elderly gentleman taken to sightseeing with the avidity displayed by this one, and every one of the seven Plumsteads voted him to be "a jolly decent sort".
His first move this morning was to take them across the harbour in a steam ferry to a small jetty opposite the Circular Quay, where they transhipped to a tiny tug which took them to Farm Cove, round Clark Island, and past the other sights of that most wonderful harbour; and all the time he told them thrilling stories of the early days of the Colony. He told them of the voyage of Captain Phillips, who set out from Portsmouth in May, 1787, and arrived, with eleven ships, in Botany Bay in January, 1788, only to find that Botany Bay was by no means what it had been represented, and, instead of the land being a series of beautiful green meadows sloping gently up from the shore, there was nothing but swamp and sand.
"What an awful voyage! I don't think that we will complain about our few weeks on board after that!" cried Sylvia, who was sitting close to Mr. Wallis on the deck of the tug, while Rupert sat on the deck at his feet and Rumple hovered in the background, all of them intent on getting all the information they could about the new and wonderful country to which they had come.
"The voyage now is nothing but a pleasure trip compared with what it used to be in the days of the old sailing vessels," said Mr. Wallis, who was immensely flattered at the attention given to his stories. He had always been very fond of telling people things, only the trouble was that so few seemed to care for what he had to tell; but these children simply hung on his words, and so he was inspired to do his very best to satisfy their thirst for information.
"Botany Bay is south of Sydney Harbour, isn't it?" asked Rumple, producing the dirty notebook and preparing to take notes on a liberal scale.
"Yes, and because it is so open to the east there is no protection from the Pacific swell. Captain Phillips saw that it would be impossible to found a colony there, and so he set out with one of his ships to find a better harbour farther along the coast," went on Mr. Wallis. "And it is said that a sailor named Jackson discovered the entrance to what is now known as Sydney Harbour, and it was named Port Jackson in honour of him."
"I wish that I could discover something that could be named after me," said Rumple with a sigh. "Port Plumstead, or even Mount Plumstead, would have an uncommonly nice sound, and I do want to be famous."
"There is fame of a sort within the reach of everyone," answered Mr. Wallis quietly.
"What sort of fame?" asked Rupert quickly. He had been very silent before, leaving it to the others to do most of the talking.
Mr. Wallis smiled, and his middle-aged countenance took on a look of lofty nobility as he said slowly: "We can each impress ourselves on our fellows in such a way that so long as life lasts they must remember us because of some act or acts for the good of suffering humanity, and that, after all, is the fame that lasts longest and is at the same time most worth having. We can't all be explorers, you know, for there would not be enough bays, mountains, and that sort of thing to go round; but there are always people in need of help, pity, and comfort."
"I wanted to be a doctor," said Rupert in a voice that was more bitter than he guessed. "But who ever heard of a lame doctor? Everyone would be howling for the physician to heal himself."
"There is no reason why you should not be a doctor that I can see: not if you do not mind hard work that is," said Mr. Wallis. "I have known lame doctors and hump-backed doctors too; indeed one's own disability would serve to make one all the more keen on doing one's best for other people. In the Colony, too, there is not the money bar that exists in the old country, because anyone can rise from the gutter here to any position almost that he may choose to occupy, and you are not in the gutter by any means."
"Not quite," replied Rupert with a laugh, and a lift of his head like Nealie.
The tour of the harbour took so long that they did not get back to the city until the afternoon, and then their kind host carried them off to tea at the Botanical Gardens, which were one of the finest sights that any of them had seen. Ducky fairly screamed with delight at the lovely flowers, while Don and Billykins could hardly be induced to leave the ornamental waters where the water fowl congregated looking for food.
Nealie and Mr. Wallis came in search of them when tea was ready, and found them absorbed in watching a toucan from America and a rhinoceros hornbill from Africa, which appeared to have struck up a friendship from the fact that they were both aliens.
"Come to tea, boys; you can inspect those creatures later if you want to," said Mr. Wallis.
"I say, Nealie, what does the toucan want to have such a long bill for?" asked Billykins, slipping his arm through Nealie's as they walked back to the tearooms together.
"Perhaps he did not want to have a long bill, but having it must needs make the best of it," she answered, with a laugh, then suddenly grew grave with pity and concern as a man with his right coat sleeve pinned across his breast passed them at the place where the path grew narrow. They all knew that for some reason it always made her sad to see a one-armed man, although she took no especial notice of people who had been so unfortunate as to lose a leg. Mindful of this fact, Billykins was trying to divert her attention by talking very fast about what he had seen; but twisting his head round to see if the maimed stranger was leaving the gardens or taking the other path which led by a picturesque bridge round to the other entrance to the tearooms, he was surprised to see him stop and speak to Mr. Wallis, who was walking behind with Don.
"Did you see that man with one arm, who passed us just now and spoke to me?" said Mr. Wallis, joining Nealie and walking by her side.
"Yes, I saw him," she replied, her voice rather fainter than usual, while some of the fine colour died out of her cheeks.
"His is a most interesting and unusual case," went on Mr. Wallis. "He is one of our very rich men now, and the funny part of it is that he declares he owes all his prosperity to the loss of his limb, which, but for a mistake of the doctor's, he need not have lost at all."
"What do you mean?" she asked, stopping short in the path and staring at him with parted lips, her face so ghastly white that he asked her anxiously if she felt ill.
"No, no, it is nothing, thank you, but I want to hear about that man. It sounds most awfully interesting; and won't you tell me what his name is?" she said, turning such a wistful gaze upon him, that it seemed to him there must have been some sorrow in her life, although she laughed in such a cheery, lighthearted way as a rule.
"Reginald Baxter. He is English, and came out to this country about six or seven years ago. His people are very aristocratic, but poor as church mice, and they were so terribly upset at his disaster they practically cast him off; but he seems to have no false pride himself and no unnecessary notions of his own importance; but he is a veritable king of finance——"
"What is that?" demanded Don; but Billykins was watching Nealie with a close scrutiny, and he had his fists clenched tightly as if he were meditating some sort of revenge upon the innocent Mr. Wallis for the pain he was giving her in talking about the one-armed man.
"A king of finance is a man who has a natural gift for managing money and making it increase. I should not wonder if you develop a cleverness in that way yourself when you are a little older," said Mr. Wallis, who was a keen student of human nature and had already amused himself by mentally forecasting the future of the seven.
"Perhaps I shall," answered Don stolidly. "Anyhow I don't mean to be poor when I grow up, for I shall just go without things until I get a lot of money saved, and Mr. Runciman used to say that money made money, and if a man could save one hundred pounds the next hundred would save itself."
"Well done, Mr. Runciman, that is sound philosophy!" said Mr. Wallis, and was going to expound the art of money making still further when there came a sudden interruption from Billykins.
"Can't you talk about something else, please? You have made Nealie cry by going on so about that one-armed man. She never can bear to talk about them, and you didn't see that she did not like it," he said in a shrill and very aggrieved tone.
"Miss Plumstead, I am truly sorry. I had no idea that I was saying anything to pain you. Please forgive me!" said Mr. Wallis in a shocked tone, for Nealie's face was covered with her handkerchief, and by the heave of her shoulders it was easy to see that she was crying bitterly.
"Oh, it is nothing, quite nothing, and I am very silly!" she said nervously. "But somehow I never can bear to see men who have lost their limbs. It is so sad and hopeless, because, of course, they can never be the same again, and life must be so very sad."
Mr. Wallis laughed in a cheerful manner. "I don't think that you would consider Reginald Baxter a very sad man if you knew him. As I said before, he looks upon the loss of his arm as his entrance into freedom, and it would be hard to find a happier man, I should think. But let us go in and find some tea, and think no more about such matters."
Tea was such a merry function that no one had much time to notice that there was something wrong with Nealie, although she was so very quiet that Rupert asked her once if she did not feel well.
"Oh yes, I am quite well, thank you; only perhaps a little tired," she replied, smiling at him in a rather wistful fashion; and then, as Sylvia claimed his attention, he forgot about it, and there was so much to see and to hear, with so many details of to-morrow's journey to discuss, that it is not wonderful he did not even remember Nealie had said she was tired.
Later in the evening, when they were back at the hotel, the younger ones had gone to bed, and Mr. Wallis had gone away after bidding them a most affectionate good night, Nealie said abruptly: "There is something you ought to know, Rupert, that I have always hated to tell you."
"Then don't tell it," put in Sylvia lazily. "I think that half the misery of the world comes through having to do unpleasant things, such as going to bed when you want to sit up, and in having to get up by candlelight on a dark morning in winter when you would far rather take your breakfast in bed."
"What is it? A trouble of some sort?" asked Rupert, with a start, for he was remembering Nealie's low spirits at teatime and wondering where the trouble came in.
"Yes," said Nealie shortly, and then hesitated as if not sure where to begin.
"Well, you can enjoy it together, if it must be told, but I am going to bed, for it seems to me almost like a sacrilege to spoil such a beautiful day as this has been with even a hint of anything unpleasant," said Sylvia, getting out of her easy chair in a great hurry. Then she said in quite a pathetic tone, as she kissed Rupert: "I wonder when we shall have easy chairs to sit in again; don't you?"
"I don't see that it matters very much; I am not gone on that sort of thing myself," he replied briefly; and then he turned to Nealie, asking in a tone of grave concern, as Sylvia hurried away to bed: "Is it anything about Father, Nealie?"
"Yes," she said faintly. "That is to say, it is about the trouble that came before Ducky was born; you remember it?"
"I never knew more about it than that he made a mistake, some medical blunder, for which he would have to live more or less under a cloud for the remainder of his professional life. I thought it was all that any of us knew, and Aunt Judith hated to have it mentioned." Rupert's tone was fairly aggressive now, for he was quite abnormally sensitive on this subject of his father's disgrace, which had indirectly cost his mother her life and had plunged the family into poverty, and bereft them of their father also.
"Mrs. Puffin told me all about it one day soon after Aunt Judith was taken ill," said Nealie, her voice quivering now with emotion, for it was terrible to her to have to talk of this thing which had thrown such a shadow over their lives.
"How did she know?" demanded Rupert hotly, thinking how hateful it was that a servant should know more about their private skeleton than they knew themselves.
"Aunt Judith told her," replied Nealie; and then she burst out hotly: "But indeed there is nothing to look so shocked about in the affair, Rupert. If Father did make a mistake, it was not so serious as it might have been; and I think that it was altogether wrong to hush it up as it has been. There are some things which are all the better for being told, and I am quite sure that this is one of them."
"What do you mean?" he asked hoarsely. "I should think that a mistake of that kind should be buried as deep as possible, for who would be likely to trust a doctor who might make blunders that might cost a man his life?"
"It was not a life-or-death blunder in that sense, but only one of maiming," said Nealie hastily. "Father wanted to take off a man's arm to save his life; but the family, and I suppose the man himself, would not hear of it, for the man was heir to someone's property, an awful pile it was; and the someone—she was a woman—said that her money should never go to a man who was maimed. So of course the man's family would not hear of it, and they would not have another doctor called in either; and things went on, the poor man getting worse and worse, until one day Father declared that he would throw up the case, because he would not be responsible for the man's life. Then the man said that it could be taken off if Father liked, only it must be done without his people knowing anything about it, which was easy enough, seeing that he was being nursed at his lodgings. Father sent for another doctor to come and administer the chloroform, and he performed the operation himself, as the man was too bad to be moved eight miles to the nearest hospital. There was a frightful week after that, when Father simply gave up everything to pull the poor fellow through. He did it too, and the relatives did not know until he was out of danger that the arm had been amputated."
"Whew, what a story!" said Rupert, mopping his forehead, on which the perspiration stood in great beads. "I think that Father was a hero, because he acted up to his principle—the true doctor principle—of saving life at no matter what cost to himself. But I don't mind admitting, now that I know the truth, that I have always been afraid of hearing that story, because I had got the impression that there was something really disgraceful behind."
"Poor Father has had to suffer as bitterly as if he had made the most ghastly blunder imaginable," said Nealie sadly. "The man's people had a lot of influence, although they were not really wealthy, and when they found out that the arm had been taken off they simply hounded Father down as if he were a criminal. He was boycotted in every direction, and in the end he had to get out of his practice in a hurry. Then Ducky was born, and Mother died; and there would have been no home for us at all if Aunt Judith had not opened her house to take us in."
"Poor Father!" murmured Rupert, and then he thrust his hands deep in his pockets, and sat staring at the floor, frowning his blackest, until, a sudden thought striking him, he sat up straight, and asked abruptly: "What made you dig all that up to-day, after keeping it to yourself so long?"
"Because I met the man whose arm Father cut off," replied Nealie quietly.
"You did? Where?" demanded Rupert savagely, and looking as if he would like to go and have it out with the man there and then.
"A one-armed man passed us in the Botanical Gardens, and Mr. Wallis told me that a doctor had cut off his arm by mistake, and that the man's name was Reginald Baxter; then I knew that it must be the man on whose account Father had to suffer so badly."
"Did he—did he look very poor?" asked Rupert in a hesitating manner; for if the man had to lose his inheritance as a penalty for losing his arm, it did seem as if the poor fellow should be pitied.
"He looked as well off as other people, that is to say, he was dressed in an ordinary way; but Mr. Wallis told me that he was one of the richest men in the city—a king of finance, he said he was," replied Nealie.
Rupert gave a long whistle, and then rose to his feet, yawning widely. "So Father didn't balk the business so badly after all!" he said, and then went to bed.
"I say that this is just ripping!" cried Rumple joyously.
He was sitting under the tilt of a light wagon with Rupert, the two small boys, and Ducky, while Nealie and Sylvia occupied the post of honour in front, and guided the steps of the big horse which was to draw the wagon to Hammerville.
Nealie held reins and whip in quite a professional style, and if she was nervous she took good care to say nothing about it. She had, before starting from the yards of Messrs. Peek & Wallis, ably demonstrated her ability to manage a horse by unharnessing this very animal and leading it into the stable. Then leading it out again she had harnessed it with her own hands, backed it carefully into the shafts, and finished the processes of hitching to in a smart and workmanlike manner.
The others wanted to assist her; but as she had to take the responsibility, and sign the books of the company, she preferred to do the whole thing herself, although she promised that one or more of them should always help her at the harnessing and unharnessing when they were on the journey.
"Yes, it is ripping!" echoed Sylvia. "But do you know, I was simply shaking with nervousness when Nealie was harnessing, for I was so afraid that she would make some awful blunder, and that they would refuse to let us have the horse and wagon, for I knew that I could not have stood the test as she did; and then, too, these colonial horses seem to have such a good opinion of themselves, and they carry their heads with a swagger that is entirely different from the meek, downtrodden air of the Turpins, and Smilers, and Sharpers of the old country; and their names are as bumptious as themselves. Fancy a horse being named Rockefeller! I vote that we call the dear creature Rocky for short. What do you say?"
"Not a bad idea!" cried Nealie, who was flushed and triumphant at having passed the test imposed on her by Mr. Wallis before he would allow her to take the responsibility of the horse and wagon. Rupert's lameness had been the bar to his being in charge, and if Nealie, or, failing her, Sylvia, had been unable to harness and unharness without danger to themselves, then it would have been necessary to send a driver with them, which would not merely have added to the expense, but would have imposed a most uncomfortable restraint upon them.
Mr. Wallis had sent a reliable man to see them clear of the city and beyond the area of the electric trams; then, once out in the country, and provided with a map of the route to be traversed, the driver bade them good morning, and they were absolutely on their own.
"I wonder how far we shall get to-night?" said Rupert, who was in charge of the map, and had been promptly nicknamed the "route boss" by the others.
"We ought to get to Kesterton—Mr. Wallis said so," answered Rumple, who had charge of the provisions, and was at that moment sitting upon the grub box, which had been thoughtfully filled for the start by Mr. Wallis.
"I don't mind where we get to by night—no, I mean sundown, for that is what Australians say—but I do hope it will soon be time to open the grub box, for I am getting most fearfully hungry, and I expect the horse is hungry too," said Ducky, who was in high feather this morning, and full of the oddest little jokes, with quips and cranks of all sorts. She had kept up a fire of small jokes with Don and Billykins ever since the start, for she was wildly excited because she was going to see her father, who of course could not possibly know her until he was told who she was.
"You can have food now, and I know there are some lovely sandwiches on the top of the box, for I saw the woman at the shop pack them into their place above those tins of tongue," said Nealie; "but I have had strict orders to feed Rocky only at sunrise, noon, and sundown, and the noon meal is to be a slight one, and I am going to obey orders."
"How shall we get the horse and wagon back from Hammerville to Sydney? Will it have to be put on the rail?" asked Rumple, who had not heard, or else had forgotten, the final instructions which had been given to his sister.
"We have to hand it over to the nearest agent of the company, and he lives about twenty miles from Hammerville on the nearest point of the railway," replied Nealie.
"Do you mean that the railway does not go nearer than twenty miles from Hammerville?" cried Sylvia. "Why, the place must be quite at the back of beyond!"
"That is just about where it is, my dear; and if you thought that it was going to be a second Sydney, why, you are in for a pretty big disappointment, I am afraid," said Rupert, who was still poring over the map. "Hammerville is a mining place, although it is not quite clear to me yet what kind of mining is done there, and it seems to have sprung into existence within the last six or seven years. This Gazetteer affair says that it is a very healthy place, and bound to develop into a city of the first importance; only, so far as I can see, it is not very big yet, though doubtless it will receive a mighty impetus of growth when it has the honour of sheltering us. Only I don't mean to stay there very long;" and as he spoke Rupert folded up the map, putting it in his pocket with a satisfied slap, then sat looking out between the shoulders of Nealie and Sylvia, a happy smile curving his lips.
Life had taken on a new aspect for him since the real truth of his father's story had been made known to him, and already he had made up his mind that he was going to be a doctor, if by hard work he could pass the preliminary tests and win a scholarship that would let him climb the ladder of learning without expense to his father. Mr. Wallis had told him the way to set about obtaining his heart's desire, and it would not be a little thing which would turn him back, now that he knew there had been no real dishonour in his father's professional downfall. While the others ate sandwiches, and chattered like magpies about what they would do when the night camp was made, Rupert sat absorbed in day-dreams, building castles in the air, and making up his mind as to how he would go to work in good earnest directly Hammerville was reached.
The horse was good and fresh, the road was plain before them, and Nealie forged ahead so intent on her business that she paid little heed to Rupert's silence or the noisy chatter of the others.
The day was very hot, and they rested the horse for two hours in the middle of the day, unharnessing the big creature, and washing his face with as much care as if he had been a human being; then, after he had had the regulation amount of water, he was tied to a tree and fed, after which the seven had a merry meal from that well-filled grub box and some tea from a real billy, which they boiled over a fire of sticks that had been gathered by Don and Billykins.
The suburbs of Sydney extend so far that they could not be said to be free of them yet; there were pleasant villas with ornamental grounds and a riotous wealth of flowers dotted here and there along the road. Great stretches of land were under vegetable cultivation, and the seven had been vastly interested to see Chinamen with long pigtails hanging down their backs walking up and down between rows of potatoes, peas, and cauliflowers, letting in water from the irrigation channels, and turning it this way or that with the twist of a naked foot.
The noonday halt was on a patch of ground just off the road, which looked like private land with the fence broken down; but no one came to complain of their resting there, while there was water and shade, and the spot seemed to be made on purpose for their requirements.
"What a jolly place this would have been for the night camp! I doubt if we shall find a spot so suitable when evening comes. What a pity we cannot stay here!" said Sylvia regretfully; the heat had made her lazy, and it did not seem worth while to go farther and to fare worse when they had such a lovely spot to rest in.
"We ought to do twenty miles a day at the very least, and we have not done more than ten as yet, so we must push on a little farther," replied Nealie, standing up and stretching her arms above her head. Quite privately she was saying to herself that she would love to camp just then and there, for between sightseeing and excitement she was feeling rather worn out. But it did not take much arithmetic to know that if they only went ten miles in a day's journey they would be nearly a month on the road, and at that rate their money would certainly not hold out, for there were seven of them to feed, and even the horse would cost money for food later on, as the animal would need corn or oatmeal to keep it in good form for drawing the wagon.
So she resolutely put away the temptation to camp at that most convenient spot, and, calling Rumple to help her harness, she set about the preparations for a start.
The zest of travel had gone from all of them, however, and they went forward in languid silence, while the heat and the dust seemed literally to choke them. Then came a long hill, which appeared to stretch for miles in front of them.
"I am going to walk for a time," said Nealie, as she sprang down and went to the head of the horse, and the others tumbled out also, except Rupert and Ducky, and they trailed along in the little shade cast by the side of the wagon, and declared that it was less tiring to walk in the dust than to be cooped up under the tilt of the wagon.
"We ought to be looking for a camping place soon, for of course we shall be rather longer getting things into shape on the first night," said Nealie, and then Rumple and Sylvia begged to be allowed to go forward and find a place which seemed suitable for the purpose, and on their promising not to leave the road, Nealie said they might go.
The way still led upward, and between the trees they could still get glimpses of the waters of the wide harbour, although a few miles farther on the road would turn inland, and then they would have to bid goodbye to the sea.
Billykins trudged along by the side of Nealie, doing valiant things in the matter of leading the horse, but Don trotted on just in front, looking for a camping ground, which he found presently in a little hollow by the side of the road, not far from a house, where water could be begged for themselves, and also for the horse: a great convenience this, because they seemed to have left the region of little roadside streams, and they had seen no water since noon.
"I wonder why Sylvia and Rumple do not come back. Do you think that they can have lost their way?" Nealie asked Rupert, when he came to help her unharness the horse, after the wagon had been drawn into position at the side of the road.
"If they have, they will soon find it again when they turn round to come back," said Rupert in a casual tone; but secretly he was very much worried because they had not come back, and would promptly have gone in search of them if his foot had not ached so much as to make walking out of the question.
Don, Billykins, and Ducky worked very hard at getting supper ready, but everyone was more or less anxious, and no one really enjoyed things, until, just as they were going to sit down to supper without them, the wanderers appeared. They were very tired, and dreadfully shamefaced at having stayed away so long that all the burden of supper preparations was thrown on the others.
"We don't mind that; only we were so worried because you were away so long," replied Nealie, who had been looking rather white and worn, but who was smiling now that the worry was at an end.
The night was delightfully fine, and they grew very merry as they sat round the supper fire. It really seemed a shame to turn in; but, mindful of the early start which would have to be made next morning, Nealie said they really must go to bed.
It was one thing to talk of turning in and quite another to do it, however. The three girls were going to sleep on the floor of the wagon, but when the mattress was unrolled there seemed no room at all, and so much twisting and turning was necessary, before there was room for the three of them to lie down, that a good part of the night was taken up in getting comfortable; indeed they might not have been able to sleep at all if it had not been for Sylvia's brilliant idea of lying in what she called the head and toe position; that is to say, her head and Nealie's feet shared the same end of the mattress, while Ducky, being so many sizes smaller, was accommodated somewhere about the middle.
Down below, the boys had more room and less comfort. A tarpaulin spread over the shafts of the wagon made a sort of tent in front, there was more sailcloth draped round the wheels and the back part of the wagon, while a waterproof sheet spread on the ground served as a sort of floor on which to spread two mattresses. But, as Rumple said, it was very hard, and it was a night or two before they were really comfortable.
The novelty of the thing kept them from complaining, however, and there was not one of the seven who would have changed their quarters for the most comfortable bed that was ever invented. It was great fun to lie listening to Rocky munching alongside, and to fall asleep with the out-of-door feeling, and the stars looking in from the rift in the canvas covering.
But it was still greater fun to wake next morning, to wash in a bucket, and then to hurry round, getting breakfast in the crisp, fresh air of the early morning. It was going to be tremendously hot later on, so breakfast was hurried over, and the start made before the cool breeze of the sunrising had entirely died away.
It was the real start this morning, for the road turned inland from the sea, and there was not one of the seven who did not feel as if they were saying goodbye to an old friend when the last gleam of blue water was hid from sight, and the hills, clothed with olive-green foliage, bounded the horizon.
But it was not in their nature to be sad for very long, so ten minutes later their laughter was ringing out once more, and they set their faces towards the unknown with the cheerful determination to make the best of things which always marked their doings.
Rumple had retired to the rack at the back of the wagon, because he wished for quiet in which to write a poem to celebrate the occasion, and the others forgot all about him until they drew under the shade of a grove of trees for the noonday halt, when, to their extreme consternation, it was found that Rumple was missing.
In a Strange Place
Rumple opened his eyes and stared about him in amazement. He was lying in a room which had big pink vases on the mantelpiece, a blue firescreen, and a green paper on the walls. There was a centre table, too, which was piled with books and strewn with photographs. There was one—the portrait of a man—which had a silver-gilt frame, and stood in the place of honour, and Rumple gazed at it in amazement, wondering where he had seen it before.
"Why, I do believe it is Mr. Melrose!" he cried in a shrill voice.
"Better, are you, dear?" asked a voice at his side, and he twisted his head, to see a woman, not yet middle-aged, with a kindly face which matched her voice.
"Have I been bad?" he asked in a wondering tone, and then, suddenly remembering, he called out anxiously: "Why, where are the others?"
"Who are the others, dear? You were lying alone on the road when we found you; and when we first picked you up we thought that you were dead," said the woman.
"Just my luck!" cried Rumple, with a groan. "I sat at the back of the wagon—on the rack behind, you know—so that I might have some quiet, because I was turning out a little poem. Then I remember that I got sleepy, and I suppose that I fell off; only I wonder that it did not wake me up."
"We think that you must have stunned yourself with the fall, and we should have sent for a doctor, only he lives fifteen miles away, and we had no horse that could do the journey just then, and we had to wait for a few hours to see if you would be better," said the woman; and then she asked again: "But who were you with, dear, and how was it they went on and left you lying all alone in the road, you poor child?"
"Why, that was because they did not know that I had fallen off, of course," said Rumple hastily, for there was so much reproach for the rest of the family in her tone that he was instantly on the defensive on their behalf.
"Then I expect that your mother will be in a fine state of mind about you," said his hostess, who was fussing round him much after the fashion in which a motherly hen would fuss round a brood of chickens.
Rumple hastily explained then that he had no mother, and detailed the journeyings of his family, while the good woman stood with her hands uplifted in horrified amazement to think that a lot of irresponsible children should be left to wander about the world in such an unprotected fashion.
"We are used to looking after ourselves, and Nealie is nearly grown up. She does not have her hair hanging down her back now, because it makes her look so much more responsible, now that she wears it in a bunch on the top of her head," explained Rumple.
"And you say that you have one of Peek & Wallis's wagons? Why, they are most dreadful particular sort of people, and they always want money down and no end of security besides; no blame to them either, seeing how bad some people are about paying their just debts," said the woman, with so much surprise in her tone that Rumple felt it necessary to explain a little further.
"Oh, Mr. Melrose cabled from Cape Town to Mr. Wallis, saying that he would be security for the paying of the wagon hire. Mr. Melrose is a gentleman whom we met on board ship, a very nice person indeed; but it seemed so funny to see his photograph here," and Rumple waved a languid hand towards the portrait in the silver frame. His head was aching furiously, and he felt very weak and shaken from the fall; but he had to make some sort of explanation about himself, and it seemed almost like a certificate of respectability to be able to claim acquaintance with a person whose portrait had the place of honour in the house.
"So you know Cousin Tom, do you? I know he has been to Europe lately, although we have not heard from him since he got back. But now that I know where you have come from I must send off to the road and have a notice stuck up, so that your sister may know where to find you;" and the good woman was bustling out of the room, when Rumple stretched out an imploring hand to stop her.
"If you please, can't I go with the somebody, and then Nealie will not have to worry about me, and it will save such a lot of bother?" he said, with so much entreaty that the woman hesitated; but seeing how pale and shaken he looked she decided that his family would have to take a little trouble on his behalf, and said so.
"You will have to lie still for a few hours, for you are more shaken than you realize; but we will stick a notice up on the side of the road, to let your people know where to find you, and then they can camp here for the night, so as to be ready to start on again first thing to-morrow morning," she said, and then hurried away to post a messenger off to the main road, which was two or three miles away, while Rumple lay staring about at his new surroundings, The ceiling and walls of the room were of canvas, and the furniture was good of its kind, but dreadfully crowded. There was a piano, too, but the dust lay so thickly on it that he decided that the family were not very musical, or else that they were too busy with other things to have much time for relaxation. There was a deep veranda in front of the window and a lot of flowers planted in pots and tins. Beyond the veranda he had glimpses of a gorgeous garden, with sweetpeas, marguerites, queer-looking cactus plants, blazing-red geraniums, and a coral tree in full bloom.
"I wonder if Father will have a garden like this at Hammerville?" he muttered to himself, with a keen pleasure in all the riot of blossom that was to be seen from his sofa, and then he lay quite still trying to make some verses about the garden, and at the same time wondering lazily what the others were doing, until he fell asleep and did not wake until milking time. He felt so much better then, and he was so furiously hungry, that he decided to go on a voyage of discovery to see for himself what the outside of his haven of refuge was like.
The yard outside was a scene of pretty lively activity. The cows were just being fastened for milking, that is to say they were tied by the head, each one to her stall, and then the hind leg was strapped so that there could be no danger of the animal kicking the pail over.
There were several people moving about, and just at first Rumple did not see his hostess; but presently he heard a shrill voice cry out: "Mother, there is the little boy out and running about!"
Rumple felt considerably ruffled by this remark, which was not strictly true, for he was not really a little boy now, at least not compared with Don and Billykins, and he certainly could not be accused of running about when he was merely leaning against the garden fence and looking into the cowyard.
Then the elderly woman detached herself from a group of cows and came bustling up to the fence, exclaiming at sight of him: "Well, well, you look a sight better than before you went to sleep. How are you feeling now, dear?"
"I am dreadfully hungry," admitted Rumple, looking up into her kindly face with a smile, and thinking how much better she would look if she did her hair like Nealie, instead of dragging it into a knot at the back of her head; but really her face was so kind that her hair did not matter very much either way.
"Hungry are you? That is right. Here, come into the kitchen with me and have something to eat straight away, for we shan't have supper until the milking is done and the creatures seen to for the night. It will take another hour or more, and you have had no dinner."
Rumple followed his hostess into the kitchen, which was canvas-walled like the best parlour, but many sizes larger and so much more comfortable that Rumple decided it looked really beautiful, while the smell of new-baked bread and cakes made a fragrance very delightful to a hungry boy.
There was a wood fire smouldering on a great open fireplace, and raking the embers open the good woman put a toasting fork into Rumple's hands and bade him toast scones for himself. He was invited to put the butter on for himself also, and there was milk to drink in a big mug close beside him. So the next half-hour passed pleasantly enough.
But when his hunger was satisfied Rumple began to worry about the others and started for the cowyard once more in order to see if any news of the wagon had arrived. Truth to tell, he was feeling very guilty because of all the trouble he was giving, for he knew that Rupert and Nealie would be very worried and anxious concerning him, and the journey would be delayed also.
He had discovered that the woman who had found him lying in the road and had brought him home was a Mrs. Warner, that her husband was away from home that day on business, and that all the people moving about the cowyard were the sons and daughters of the house, with the exception of an old black fellow who had only one eye.
The milking was over and the cows had all been turned into the home paddock for the night, but now a strange humming noise made itself heard on the quiet air.
"Why, what is that?" asked Rumple as one of the young Warners passed him, bowed under the weight of two heavy pails of sour milk for the poultry.
"That is the separator. Do you want to see it at work?" asked the boy, with a friendly grin. He was a few years older than Rumple and scorched to a berry-brown by the sun.
"What is a separator?" demanded Rumple, whose knowledge of farming was of a rather antiquated description, Beechleigh being about twenty years behind the times.
"It is the thing that parts the cream from the milk. Go into the dairy and have a look at it," said the youth, nodding his head in the direction of a long, low shed that had been built into the side of the hill, and which was so covered with creepers that it looked almost like a part of the bank.
Away went Rumple, nothing loath. Something fresh always appealed to him, and in this new land fresh things were meeting him at every turn.
Fascinated, he stood watching the machine, the cream pouring from one spout and the milk from the other, while a rosy-faced Miss Warner turned the handle, and another Miss Warner, with pale cheeks and quite a stylish air, bustled about the dairy putting things straight for the night.
"If you please, have you seen or heard anything of our wagon?" asked Rumple, when at length the separating was done for the night and both girls were busy clearing up.
"No, we haven't; but Bella and a friend are going to walk out to the road after work to see if they can find out anything for you," said the stylish sister, and Bella, the red-cheeked one, gurgled and choked with amazing enjoyment, and said:
"My friend indeed! La, Amy, how neatly you always put things!"
They all went in to supper after that, but Rumple, who had eaten so many scones and so much butter that he would not be hungry for a long time to come, sat on the step of the veranda and stared out at the darkening night, feeling a little homesick for the others.
Then away in the distance he heard the slow rumble of wagon wheels, and a moment later a clear voice rang out on the still air:
"Steady, Rocky, steady, old fellow, or you will upset the whole show into the ditch!"
"It is Nealie!" yelled Rumple in an ecstasy of joy. "Mrs. Warner, our wagon is coming, for I can hear my sister Nealie calling to the horse."
"Now that is downright good news. Come, bustle about, girls, and get some more supper ready, for the poor things will be nearly starved by this time, I should think!" cried the hospitable mistress of the farm.
A Fright at Night
"There he is, there he is!" squealed Ducky in the shrillest of trebles as Rumple started to run along the dusty track up which the wagon was advancing.
"Oh, you blessed boy, how could you have the heart to give us such a fright?" cried Sylvia, who had been walking at the side of the wagon and now rushed forward to fling her arms round Rumple and hug him until he was nearly smothered.
"I'm awfully sorry, truly I am, but I didn't know anything about it; and I tell you I just felt bad when I woke up in Mrs. Warner's parlour and she told me that she had picked me up in the road and thought at first that I was dead," explained Rumple, with an air of gloomy importance; for in spite of the sorrow he felt at having given the others so much anxiety there was a thrill of satisfaction at having figured in such a fashion. To be picked up for dead had a good sound with it, and might serve as quite a big incident when he wrote the story of his life.
"Oh, my dear, I will never let you sit upon the rack out of sight again unless you are tied fast to the seat!" cried Nealie, who by this time had jumped down from the wagon and was hugging him in place of Sylvia, who had been pushed aside.
"Or we might tie the frying pan and the tin billy round his neck, and then there would be such a rattle when he fell that we should be sure to hear and could pick him up at our leisure," said Rupert. There was a quiet drawl in his tone which meant that his foot was more painful than usual; but Nealie had been so occupied with her anxiety on Rumple's account that she had little time for watching her eldest brother, who never said a word about himself, however bad he might feel.
"I shall not do such a stupid thing again of course, but it might have been worse," said Rumple. "This is a jolly place: no end of cows, and a real separator; you put them in at the top, the milk I mean, not the cows, and they come out cream one side and milk the other. Mrs. Warner is jolly too, and oh! what do you think, she is cousin to that Mr. Melrose who left the ship at Cape Town, and sent the cable to Mr. Wallis."
By the time Rumple had managed so much of explanation the horse and wagon had halted outside the cowyard, and Mrs. Warner came rushing out to greet the arrivals.
"I am really glad to see you; we don't get many visitors in these lonely places, you know, and so company is always a treat. I am afraid that you must have been rather scared when you found your brother was missing, but when he was able to tell us how it all happened we sent off a notice to be stuck up at the side of the road as soon as possible."
"It was most kind of you to be so thoughtful," said Nealie. "Only the trouble was that we had found out Rumple was missing, and we had come back on our tracks, right past the place where the notice was posted, and we had nearly reached the cutting where they are going to make the railway. We halted there, because we knew that when we passed that place before Rumple was with us, and after we had been there about half an hour a man came riding up from the way we had come, and he asked what was the matter that we were so down on our luck; so we told him that one of our brothers was missing, and then he said that he had seen a notice up at the Four-Mile Corner, that stated a boy had been found lying in the road, and had been taken to Warner's Farm, in the Holderness Valley, but he was not hurt."
"I had that bit put to keep you from being scared," said Mrs. Warner, nodding her head in a vigorous fashion. "I guessed that you would be feeling pretty bad, and so I just told Tom to put it in big black letters that the boy wasn't hurt."
"It was most kind of you!" said Nealie, flushing and paling. "I do not know how I should have had the courage to find my way up here but for those last words, and I am so very, very grateful to you for being so kind to Rumple."
"Tcha!" cried Mrs. Warner, making a funny clicking noise with her tongue. "Come in and have some supper, all of you; though where we can put seven of you to sleep is more than I can say, for we are pretty full with our own lot; but we will manage somehow, don't you fret."
"Oh, but, please, we have our own supper things, and we always sleep in the wagon; that is, we girls sleep in the wagon, and the boys have two mattresses underneath, so we never have to trouble anyone," said Nealie hastily.
"What a fine idea!" cried Mrs. Warner, holding up her hands in astonishment. "It makes you so independent of hotels and that sort of thing; besides, these wayside houses are not many of them suitable places for young people to stay at. But you are not going to eat your own supper when you come to see me, not if I know it. Come along into the kitchen, all of you, there is plenty to eat, only you have caught us all in the rough."
"But, please, we must look after Rocky, that is our horse, before we have our own supper; we always do," said Nealie, feeling as if the stormy day was going to have a peaceful ending, seeing that they were to find a supper all ready for them, instead of having to cook it for themselves.
"Tom will see to your horse, and a fine creature it is too. But Peek & Wallis always do supply good cattle; we often have their horses out here. Tom is my eldest, and he is downright smart with horses. Tom, Tom, come and lend a hand, will you?"
At the sound of his mother's shout Tom came hurrying out from the back door; but he was so dreadfully shy, when he saw Nealie and Sylvia standing by the horse, that he was just going to make a bolt for it, and pretend that he had business in another direction, only just then Nealie began to unharness the animal, setting about her task with such an air of being accustomed to it that he suddenly forgot to be awkward and nervous, walking up to the wagon and saying, in a matter-of-fact tone: "Here, Miss, I'll look to your animal, and give him his supper and a rub down, while you go in with Mother and get a feed for yourself."
"You are very kind," said Nealie, "but I will just get his supper corn from the bottom of the wagon, because you will not know where to find it, and Mr. Wallis said that a horse could not do heavy draught work on grass feed."
"I should think not," replied Tom, with such an air of knowing all about it as made his mother glow with pleasure, for Tom's shyness was a real trouble to her, she never having been afflicted in that way herself. "The horse shall have a corn feed, Miss, but it will be our corn and not yours; that will do for to-morrow or the next day."
"Of course we don't let people feed themselves or their beasts when they come here!" echoed Mrs. Warner, taking hold of Nealie and forcibly leading her into the house, while the others trouped after them.
What a crowd they made in the canvas-walled kitchen. And what a supper they ate, sitting round the table eating scones and butter, with delicious raspberry jam. Amy, the stylish sister, made a fresh batch of scones, and cooked them in the oven, while the rosy-cheeked Bella went walking with her friend, who proved to be a good-looking young farmer, living farther up the valley.
The girls slept in the wagon that night, but the boys carried their mattresses into the big hay barn, because it threatened rain, and, as Mrs. Warner said, it was much easier to keep dry than to dry up after getting wet.
About midnight the rain came down at a pour; it rained until morning, when it came down faster than ever, and Mrs. Warner would not hear of their moving on. She said that Rockefeller certainly could not drag the wagon through the loose mud of the track, and if they got out to walk they would all catch bad colds, entailing no end of misery and discomfort on them all, and the only sensible thing to do was to stay in the Holderness Valley for another day, and the weather would be sure to be better to-morrow.
This was such common-sense advice that Nealie was very glad to take it, although she felt rather embarrassed, because it looked so much like sponging on the generosity of their kind hostess.
The younger ones were all delighted to stay, and Sylvia entered herself at once as an apprentice to the dairy business by taking a lesson in milking, and Mrs. Warner declared that when Bella was married to her friend who lived higher up the valley, Sylvia could come to the farm and fill the vacant place, earning her keep, and a good deal more besides.
The boys turned the handle of the separator, and made themselves generally useful. But Nealie went off in the rain with Mrs. Warner and Tom for a ride to the butter factory with the cream from the night before and that of the morning.
Mrs. Warner had guessed shrewdly enough that Nealie had so much responsibility in an ordinary way as to make the little trip to the factory quite a holiday jaunt.
Wrapped in a big mackintosh belonging to Amy, Nealie sat on the front seat of the wagon, between Tom and his mother, and very much enjoying the novelty of seeing someone else in charge of the horse and wagon.
The factory was a series of surprises, and she came away with her head in a whirl between cream testers, butter machinery, freezing chambers, and the final processes of packing for market. It seemed to her that the world was such a wonderful place, and the things done in it were so much more wonderful still, that she must belong to the very bottom class of ignoramuses, because she did not know how to do anything save mother her sisters and brothers, and she did not realize that this might be the grandest and cleverest work of all.
All day it rained without a single stop, and far into the second night as well. But the morning broke without a cloud, the sun shone out bright and glorious, and all nature rejoiced because of the rain.
A start was made directly after breakfast, all the family of Warners crowding to the cowyard gate, to see the travellers start.
Putting Rupert and Ducky up in the wagon to ride, the other five walked the two miles and more to the Four-Mile Corner, because the Holderness Valley track was so soft from the rain. Even with this lightening of the load it was an anxious progress in places, and when they got stuck in a hollow they had to put their shoulders to the wheel and assist strength of collar by strength of arm.
But Rockefeller had been well fed at the farm, and he had had a good rest also, and, being in prime condition, made short work of the heavy track, landing them safe and sound on the main road.
Rumple's misadventure had let them in for quite a long delay, but it had also secured them a shelter when they most needed it, and so, as Nealie said, the balance was about even.
That day's journey was without incident, and so was the next. Then came Sunday, when they did not travel at all, but remained in camp all day, giving themselves and the horse a rest, and singing hymns as they sat under the trees in the shade. So far there had mostly been trees dotted here and there by the wayside, but on Monday morning the way grew wilder and rougher, they were getting out in the back country, and all round there was nothing to be seen save rolling downs and broad sheep paddocks, while the road stretched shadeless and glaring for miles on miles before them, and every step stirred blinding clouds of dust.
"This rather takes the gilt off the gingerbread," said Rupert, as he sat under the wagon tilt fanning himself with his hat and choking with dust.
Vast herds of cattle, being driven down to the coast to be turned into chilled beef for exportation, had been passing them all day, and these droves materially added to their sufferings because of the amount of dust that was raised. There was danger for Rocky, too, from the long, sharp horns of the cattle, as they pressed closely round the wagon in passing, and as a measure of precaution Nealie turned the wagon right round every time she saw a great drove approaching, by which means the back of the wagon had the chief impact.
Camping that night was not a very cheerful business. There was only a scanty supply of water available, food supplies were also running short, and there was a cold wind blowing, which one of the drovers had told them was going to be a "southerly buster", only, luckily for their present peace of mind, the seven did not as yet understand the true significance of the term.
The shortness of food was owing to their having expected to reach a certain point of the journey where fresh supplies could be procured. But they had been held up so many times that afternoon by the passing of cattle that they were five or six miles from the place where they had intended to stop when sundown came.
"Never mind being short to-night; we will have a good feed when we reach Ford to-morrow to make up for it," said Nealie cheerfully. Her money was holding out so much better than she had expected, thanks to the kindness of Mrs. Warner, that she was feeling quite easy in her mind about food supplies just at present.
"We will turn in directly we have eaten all there is for supper, before it has time to evaporate and leave us hungry again," said Rumple, who could always forget his woes in sleep.
"That is a downright jolly idea!" cried Sylvia, stretching her arms above her head in a sleepy fashion. The long days in the open air made her most fearfully hungry and tired, while to-day had certainly been the most fatiguing that they had had since leaving Sydney.
They were sitting round a fire made mainly of grass, to eat their supper, for no wood was procurable in the district in which that night's camp was made. There were, indeed, a few stunted sandalwood bushes and some odd clumps of spinifex; but these were so difficult to cut that they had preferred to manage with a bundle of wood which had been gathered some days ago and slung on to the back of the wagon for use in an emergency like this, and when the wood had dwindled to a bank of red-hot embers they had piled grass upon it, and so kept the fire going while supper was in progress, because the wind was so cold.
For the first time since they had started on their travels they were glad to go to their rest wrapped up in rugs and coats. Even then the boys under the wagon were so cold that Don suggested they should all lie very close together on one mattress, while the other was used as a top covering; and this arrangement made them so comfortable and warm that they were all fast asleep until they were suddenly aroused by a terrific screaming from the wagon. Then, when they started up, still drowsy with their heavy slumber, they were promptly knocked down and trampled in the dust.
"Help! Help!" shrieked Nealie.
"Oh! Oh! Oh!" squealed Sylvia, while Ducky's screaming rose above the deafening roar that was all around them.
Rupert and Rumple fought and struggled to throw off the mattress and the canvas and the oddments of clothing in which they were entangled. They were choked and nearly suffocated, frightened almost out of their wits by the crying of the girls, to which was now added the lusty howling of Don and Billykins, who were being rolled and punched and pummelled like their elders.
It was Rumple who got disentangled first, and when his head was free, and he had managed to scramble to his feet, he gave a horrified shout of amazement; for the wagon was lying on its side, there was the sound of galloping in his ears, and everywhere he turned there was nothing to be seen but rushing cattle and tossing horns.
They had seen so much of the fierceness of the cattle on the previous day that in a minute his hand was on Rupert's head, and he was pressing his brother back into the comparative shelter given by the projecting wagon wheel.
"Stay where you are! Don't attempt to move! It can't last much longer!" he shouted, holding Rupert down by main force now, for those tossing horns were such a frightful menace, and the mob of cattle pressed close on either side as they poured past the overturned wagon in their mad flight towards the hills.
"Oh, Rumple, what has happened? Is it an earthquake?" cried Nealie, who was somewhat reassured by hearing Rumple shout to Rupert. At least the boys were all alive, though, judging by the noise Don and Billykins were making, some of them might be rather badly damaged.
"I don't think that it is anything except the cattle on the move, only they are going as if they have been pretty badly scared," replied Rumple, trying to stand up by hanging on to the wagon wheel. Then he cried out sharply: "Look out, Nealie! Get in under the tilt quick, for here come a fresh lot! Oh, I say, we shall all be smashed flat!"
It really looked as if they would be flattened out, for the next lot of cattle, charging down the steep hillside, came straight for the camp, and but for a lucky accident would most likely have gone straight over the wagon, which lay on its side. But one big bullock caught its long horns in the spokes of the wheel, the next blundered on to it and forced it to its knees, another blundered on to that, until in about a minute and a half there was piled up a most effectual rampart of struggling beasts, which effectually checked the onrush from behind, diverting it to either side.
It was to this accident that some, at least, of the seven owed their lives, for Don and Billykins lay right in the path of the stampeding herd, while Rupert, scrambling painfully to his feet, would most certainly have been knocked down and trampled underfoot.
But the noise and the confusion, the snorting, bellowing, and blowing of all those hundreds of terrified beasts, were quite beyond description. After the first frightened outcry Ducky lay still and shivering in the arms of Sylvia, who was sitting on the side of the wagon tilt, amid the ruins of crockery and the contents of the grocery box, which had been spilled all over her. Nealie had crawled to the front opening of the tilt, and, regardless of her possible danger, had succeeded in fishing Don and Billykins from the debris of canvas and torn mattress under which they were being slowly smothered, and had dragged them into the comparative safety of the overturned wagon. Then Rupert and Rumple struggled into the same refuge, and the seven sat close together, wondering what was going to happen next, while the wild uproar raged on around them, and it seemed as if the rush of cattle would never cease.
"There must have been thousands and thousands of cattle that have gone past," said Rupert, rubbing his lips with his hand before he ventured to speak, because of the thick dust upon them.
"I should think that every one of those great mobs we have been passing all day must have turned round and bolted back by the way they came," said Sylvia. "But what I don't understand is how it came about that the wagon was bowled over."
"That is my fault," groaned Nealie. "I made Rocky back it on to the slope, because I thought that we should be more sheltered from the terrible wind, and I knew that the boys would not be in so much danger of a wetting if it rained. Then the cattle, charging down the side of the hill in the dark, must have blundered up against the wagon and just bowled it over. They are so big and clumsy, you see, and when once they start there is no stopping them. Now, if the wagon is badly damaged, we shall be put to no end of expense because of my carelessness."
"But it was not carelessness if you did it for our comfort, and it is no use thinking that the wagon is badly damaged, and getting worried about it, until you know," said Rupert. "Of course we can't do anything towards finding out, or putting it straight, until morning, for we might only make matters worse, and invite more disaster still."
"Will it be long before it is morning?" asked Billykins in a voice of misery. "I am quite dreadfully cold, and most horribly hungry."
"So am I, and I wish that we were back at Mrs. Warner's," said Don in a dismal tone.
"I don't expect that it will be very long now, and if you curl up under this rug, if it is a rug, you may go to sleep, and then you will forget about being hungry," said Nealie, gripping something which felt like drapery, and dragging it towards her.
"That is my frock!" cried Sylvia. "Creep in here, close to me, Billykins, and then you will help to keep poor Ducky warm. There is room for Don too. Don't sit on more of the lump sugar than you can help, as it is very uncomfortable, I find; but if you were to eat some of the lumps, perhaps they would warm you a little, for I have heard somewhere that there is a great deal of warmth in sugar."
"I have found a lump. Will you have it, Nealie?" asked Ducky, groping in the darkness for her elder sister, and feeling that, of them all, it was Nealie who most needed comfort just then.
"I don't want it, thank you, dearie," answered Nealie, her anxieties being too heavy for sugar to alleviate.
"Here is another; and—oh, I say, I have just put my fingers into something horribly sticky! What can it be?" and Ducky stuffed her fist in the face of Billykins, for it was so dark that she could not see where she was thrusting it.
"Look out!" he exclaimed in an offended tone, then suddenly changed to a shout of joy. "Oh, it is marmalade, and it is all over my mouth! Have you got any more of it, Nealie?"
"Of course. There was a pot in the grocery box, and I had forgotten about it, or we would have had it to help out with supper, and then it would not have been wasted in this fashion," replied Nealie, feeling that she would like to indulge in a good cry over the ruin which had come upon them.
"It won't be wasted if only I can find where that pot is. Can you guide my hand, Ducky, to find it?" asked Don eagerly.
"It seems to be all over me—the marmalade, I mean—but I don't know where the pot is, and I am most horribly sticky!" cried Ducky, who was a most fastidious little maiden.
"Where is your fist? I will suck it clean for you," volunteered Don, with such an air of brotherly self-sacrifice that Nealie burst out laughing, which was much better for her than the tears she longed to shed, and which had been smarting under her eyelids only a minute before.
For a few minutes there was great competition between Don and Billykins for the privilege of sucking Ducky's fists clean of marmalade, and, the comical side of the picture presenting itself to the little girl, she laughed as much as Nealie; then Sylvia joined in, and at length they were all making the best of things, groping in the dark for lumps of sugar and dabs of marmalade, until they lighted on some that had uncomfortably mixed itself up with the pepper, when a chorus of ohs! and ahs! sounded from the group of explorers, and everyone immediately decided that they had had enough marmalade for the present.
The cattle had all gone, and the night was entirely silent again, when Rupert said anxiously: "I wonder where Rockefeller has gone? We shall be in a pretty bad case if anything happens to the old horse."
"I will go in search of him when morning comes; the worst that could happen would be that he would stampede with the cattle, and we shall have the men in charge of the droves coming past presently," said Rumple, who had made a sort of shelter for himself and Rupert from the wreckage of the canvas which had been draped round the wagon.
"Perhaps the horse has not been upset at all by the panic of the cattle. It is not as if it had been a lot of horses rushing across the encampment in the middle of the night," said Sylvia, who had succeeded in making Ducky so warm and comfortable that the little girl was falling off to sleep again, although the rest of them were very wide-awake indeed.
"I wish that I knew what the time is, but I don't know where to find the matches, and it is too dark to see the face of my watch," said Rupert. He was feeling the situation rather keenly, because he could do so very little to help the others, when, by right of his position as eldest of the family, he ought to have done so much.
"Don't worry about the time, dear; try to get a little sleep if you can. You will need it so badly when the morning comes," said Nealie, moving a little because she found that she was sitting in the frying pan, and she remembered that it had only been rubbed with a bit of paper after being used for frying bacon on the day before yesterday.
"I vote that we all go to sleep, seeing that we can do no good by keeping awake. We can't even sort up this mess of marmalade and pepper," said Rumple, whose tongue was still on fire from the last lick of marmalade which had been so liberally mixed with pepper.
"Someone is coming. I wonder if it is one of the cattle men?" said Rupert, thrusting his head farther out from the canvas and getting the full benefit of the cold wind which came howling and moaning out of the south.
"There are two or three, judging by the noise. Shall we hail them, do you think?" asked Nealie; but her voice had a nervous ring which gave Rupert a sudden inspiration and made him say sharply:
"No, no. If they are the cattle men they will most likely hail us, and if they are not it may be better that they should not take any notice of us. Lie low, all of you, and don't make a sound while they go by."
"I am horribly afraid that I shall sneeze, for that pepper has got into my nose!" gasped Don, then went off into a paroxysm of sneezing so violent that Billykins gurgled with laughter, until Nealie found it necessary to cover the pair of them with a cushion which she had found by groping among fragments of broken cups, lumps of sugar, and debris of all sorts.
The riders, of which there were two or three, checked their horses to descend the hill past the overturned wagon; but as they did not trouble to lower their voices, every word they said was perfectly audible through the hush of the night.
"As neat a job of stampeding as ever I saw," said a hoarse voice.
"We got them away so quietly too. That was a bright idea of yours, Alf, to make friends with the watchman last night," said another, whose tones had a boyish ring, as if he were hardly grown up as yet.
"Alf always did understand making friends at the right time, and if I know anything about it, there was something more than whisky in that bottle from which you offered him a drink," said a third man, whose voice had such a horrid ring that Nealie could not repress a shudder, and she pressed the cushion down with a warning air upon the two boys as the beginning of another gurgle sounded from them.
"What is that in the hollow there?" demanded the first speaker, whom the others had called Alf.
"It looks like a wagon that has come to grief and been deserted," said the third man in a casual tone, and then they put their horses to a canter again and swept past the wagon without troubling more about it.
"Cattle thieves!" murmured Nealie, and there was a shaky sound in her voice which made Rupert reach up to grip her hand, as if he would give her more courage that way.
"What a mercy that the cattle charged down upon us and upset us in this fashion, or we might have had something even more unpleasant to bear," whispered Sylvia, clasping Ducky closer in her arms and feeling grateful for what at first had seemed such an awful disaster.
"Cattle thieves? But how will they manage to get clear away without the proper drovers finding which way they have gone?" asked Rupert, who had been straining his ears to discover the route taken by the men who had just ridden past.
"Here comes Rockefeller. I say, Nealie, let me ride a little way after those men and find out which way they have gone? It is a bit lighter now. I expect that the moon is getting up; there is the end of a moon that shows somewhere near morning, I know," said Rumple, then he thrust out his head and called softly to a shape which he had seen faintly outlined against the dark hillside, and he was immediately answered by a cheerful whinny, and a moment later Rockefeller shuffled up, his hobbles not permitting much in the way of pace, although he could get about sufficiently to feed during the night.
"Oh no, indeed you must not! I should be so horribly frightened lest they should shoot you or the horse!" cried poor Nealie, who had privately made up her mind that she could never let Rumple out of her sight again, because he was always getting into pickles.
"I would let him go, Nealie. He may be able to track those men and save the drovers hours of vain searching; then in return, perhaps, they will help us right our wagon. And we shall want some help there; I can see that plainly enough," said Rupert quietly. Then Nealie gave way at once, as she mostly did when Rupert undertook to advise her, for he certainly made up in wisdom what he lacked in bodily strength.
She struggled out of the wreckage of the wagon, and, having caught Rockefeller, no difficult task, since she never went empty handed to the work, she hoisted Rumple on to his back, then, slipping the hobbles, saw the two slink off in the darkness by the way the men had gone.
Repairing the Damage
When Rumple, perched on the back of Rockefeller, had crept quietly away into the darkness, the three elders sat straining their ears into the night for some sound that should let them know help was coming. Once or twice they spoke to each other in whispers, but for the most part they were quite silent. The two younger boys had drowsed off to sleep, while Ducky lay in a profound slumber, her warm little body seeming in some strange way to bring comfort and courage to Sylvia, in whose arms she lay. An hour dragged away, and then, to the unspeakable joy and relief of the watchers, a grey light stole over the hills, then broadened and spread until it was full dawn. There was no crimson flush of sunrise this morning, the sky was too heavy with clouds that had been blown up from the south-east; but at least it was daylight, and the comfort of being able to see what was going on made them all feel better.
The children woke up then, clamorous for breakfast. Only, as provisions were so scanty it was necessary to have a little council of ways and means straight away.
"We could make some porridge, for here is some corn-meal in a tin!" cried Nealie, who had been industriously stirring among their overturned goods and chattels since daylight came to brighten the prospect.